France 2014 - Mont St. Michel
Mont St. Michel is possibly the second most famous landmark in the country after the Eiffel Tower. The Mont is a large hunk of rock rising out of the sea just off shore in the corner between Brittany and Normandy, both of which claim it as their own (to the point that it's the subject of local jokes and tourist mementos). It's a highly defensible position, and there's been an abbey of some sort on the peak for over a millennia. Over the years it's developed into a very large abbey surrounded by a very steep conical town. Recently they've decided that the ocean around the Mont is silting up too much, and have begun works to control the river leading to the bay (an interesting dam system that lets the water out in a controlled way) and a new causeway that's up on pillars - the dam is complete, but the causeway is a major work in progress, and part of the reason we ended up parking 3km away from the actual Mont (that appears to be permanent).
Parking was a rather impressive €12.30 - I'm not sure that bothered me as much as the deceptive statements about the cost, which rather suggested that even a full day would cost you only €4.00. Ah well - this is kind of the way it goes when you're a tourist. We chose to walk all the way out rather than taking the free shuttle bus: it was a pretty nice walk.
Once you cross the drawbridge at the bottom of the town, you're looking up a long tourist-shop-laden road winding about the hill to the actual abbey. We took a sharp turn about 20 meters past the gate and went up what we thought were the defensive walls. I'm not sure that's what it was, but it also took us up more stairs, higher and higher past steep gardens and one or two hotels, until we found the entrance to the Abbey. There's actually no fee for entering the town, but the abbey does charge €9. It's very large and fairly austere, with a mid-sized church right after the entrance. After that we have the chapels and the really fantastic cloister - not only was it right up there among all the ones I've seen, it had a huge hole in the wall (now with a plastic window) looking out over the massive drop-off. The rectory, the ambulatory, the Knight's Hall, the main staircase, two different crypts ... you get the idea - it's a big place.
Given that my update of the Rough Guide under Mont St. Michel's "Dining" entry (based on their information) said "Dining = DON'T," we brought our own food. After we exited the abbey we found a patch of grass to share with some others, where we ate some pastries we'd picked up in Pontorson before we left along with a bottle of Poire. We went down via the main avenue and admired the tourist goods on sale: swords, plastic, wood and real - including quite a number of katanas. Postcards by the truck load. Religious icons, toy guns, knives, medieval play sets, hats, tapestries, t-shirts, and Joan-of-Arc statues.